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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Silent Night
Lyrics by Joseph Mohr
(Written in Salzburg, Austria and performed around the world for 200 years)

RC-Notes_3395

R.C. Sproul’s notes used for a videotaping

R.C. Sproul was the Elvis of theologians.

He corresponded via letters with novelist Pat Conroy and scientist Carl Sagan. He once led a Bible study with some of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Bradshaw-era, did a pretty decent impersonation of Peter Falk as Columbo, could recite Edger Allen Poe and Shakespeare from memory, and played jazz on the piano. He’s quoted in the vampire movie The Addiction, and once played golf with Alice Cooper. Just your average theologian.

Wait. Backup. Why are we talking about a theologian on a screenwriting/filmmaking blog?

R.C. Sproul died earlier this month and it’s brought a flood of memories to my mind because tucked between my being a 16mm cameraman at American’s Downhill in Aspen in 1987, and winning my first Emmy in 2008, I spent the decade of the ’90s producing videos with him. (You can read his official obituaries at The Washington Post or  USA TODAY.)

I saw R.C. speak at a conference before 7,000 people, and at a smaller predominately African-American church in Charleston, and occasionally recorded his talks one on one in his home. R.C.’s mind was a deep well of knowledge and it was no effort for him to switch gears between the teaching of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus with Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Thelonious Monk. R.C. believed all truth was God’s truth.

I met R.C. when I was 27 years old and just a few years removed from being an earring wearing, motorcycle riding, film school student in Los Angeles. I had Tony Lama eel skin boots, skinny Italian leather ties, and a jacket or two that would blend in on the set of Miami Vice. 

Imagine that guy walking into a Brooks Brothers blue blazer culture complete with Wingback chairs, and Hunt Club prints on the walls. I may have been a fish out of water, but it turned out to be a great opportunity on many levels.

This post is not so much a tribute to R.C. as it is about the twists and turns in the road that happen in your life. And in a round about way it’s my Christmas post this year. It’s way too long for most of you, but something I had to process. Merry Christmas.

FOLLOW YOUR OPPORTUNITIES

TV host Mike Rowe says that people shouldn’t follow their dreams, but their opportunities.  When writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) graduated from NYU film school he had a dream to make feature films, but he also had a need to earn a living. So what he did was follow his opportunity:

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

For me, working for a non-profit educational group that started out as The Ligonier Valley Study Center helped me turn the corner from film to video production, and eventually led me into the digital world. There I was able to produce, direct, shoot, and edit video projects.  As an audio producer/editor I helped launch and name the international radio program Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul in 1994. I did some photography, and helped build and design sets.

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Set for Ligonier youth video

But working for R.C. also did more than getting me hands on experience with non-linear editing with the AVID way back in mid-’90s, but it allowed me to work and learn from some of the most creative and talented people in Orlando. The list is too long to name everyone, but it includes cameraman Mike Murray of Adrenaline Films (who went on to become a director of photography on Survivor), cameraman Mike “Mac” McAleenan (now with Nat Geo credits), Bryan Smoker (now an editor at Disney World), audio engineer John Blanche (who worked on Eagles records at Criteria Records in Miami), editor Oliver Peters, film producer Rick Eldridge, and engineer Bob Zelin known for his posts at Creative Cow. 

I learned about graphics from Terry Groner, and motion graphics from Terry Briegel. And I doubt I’d won a second Emmy for location lighting if I hadn’t picked up a few tricks from DP Ben Mesker.  And I learned from Jack Rowley who first started videotaping R.C. back in the ’70s.

Just last week I saw a 1988 promotional video for “Hollywood East” and it made me smile. I left LA in December of 1987 in hopes of getting on the ground floor of the Central Florida production world as Disney and Universal were both building studios.

I guess in some ways I did, but it wasn’t the Florida version of Hollywood I was seeking.  The closest I got to that was editing a Ligonier project at Century III at Universal Studios while director David Nutter was editing Superboy in the next edit bay.

Nutter would eventually go on to win a Primetime Emmy for directing an episode of Game of Thrones, and Hollywood East eventually became a reality—in Atlanta.  But my point is Orlando in the ’90s was happening in terms of production.

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I put on a tie and a blue blazer and they let me direct

Directing multicamera shoots for Ligonier at the CBS and FOX TV studios, and just working on productions day in and day out was a great place to learn and grow.  And it positioned me well for the multimedia work I’ve been doing since 2002. And though I only saw R.C. in passing over the last 15 years, his teaching/storytelling/communication style is one that I embrace and use (without the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) when I speak to students about production.

While at the time I would have rather been an assistant cameraman on the feature films that were shot in Orlando in the late 80s and early 90s —Ernest Saves Christmas (88), Parenthood (89), Passenger 57 (92)— I think I was better served long term working with R.C. producing/directing/shooting/editing an eclectic range of projects. It was also during that time when I did some of the Holocaust interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, which is easily in my top ten all-time production experiences.

Here’s the opening I produced and edited with Bryan Smoker that I think holds up pretty well even though it was done in standard def 20 years ago .

THE LIGONIER VALLEY— SILICON VALLEY CONNECTION

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. ”
Steve Jobs
2005 Stanford graduation speech

“The older the question, the older the answer.”
Naval Ravikant (Co-founder of Angel-list)

LigonierValley_3408

Grounds of the original Ligonier Valley Study Center

There was a hunger in the ’60s for some deeper meaning to life. One clear—yet short lived— example was when the Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi in ’68. It was a time of experimentation which included psychedelic drugs and asking spiritual questions. Tech guru Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine even talks about Silicon Valley’s roots being grounded in hippy culture where there was freedom to create and innovate. The hippies may not have cared about material possessions, but they still needed to eat. So there was an entrepreneurial/bohemian/gypsy spirit where people made bracelets and such to sell at concerts and fairs.

Of course, a strange byproduct is this group of people who didn’t people care about material items laid the ground work that’s changed the world with computers and created some of the wealthiest people in the history of civilization. (Lawrence Kasden’s The Big Chill touched on the theme of how a group of friends went from not caring about material items to become full-bore materialists.)

Established places like Koinonia Farm (founded in 1942 ) in rural Georgia. were positioned well for Jesus movement when it formed in the ’60s. In 1969 Koinonia built their first house for the less fortunate, and the international group Habitat for Humanity (and President Jimmy Cater’s life work after leaving the White House) flowed from those efforts.

The early roots of Ligonier were also earthy, communal, and early church-like. Heck, I think even a few hippies were there. (Judging some of R.C. ‘s early photos I’d put him down as a beatnik.) Several documentaries and TV programs about the ’60s cover the aspect of how baby boomers were heading into the hills around the world in search of some form of spiritual enlightenment. One of those places was in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania—a rural area in the Ligonier Valley about an hour outside of Pittsburgh.

That’s where The Ligonier Valley Study Center was founded in 1971 and modeled a little after what theologian Francis Schaeffer started in Switzerland called L’Abri. (R.C. met with Schaffer before starting Ligonier.) A place where small groups of people came to stayed for days or weeks and learned more about the Bible, theology, and philosophy and how to live the Christian life.

One redemptive example from Ligonier’s early years was Chuck Colson who came to the study center after his release from prison for his role in Watergate. He was mentored one on one with R.C. before launching Prison Fellowship They work to reform inmates while in prison and prepare them to make the transition once released. Another example is Joni Eareckson Tada who listened to R.C.’s tapes after a diving incident left her paralyzed as a teenager. Despite once thinking she wasted her life she started Joni & Friends in 1979.  Her minsitry helps handicapped people around the world, including refurbishing 10,000 wheelchairs a year.

R.C. not only connected a lot of dots for me, he showed me a lot of dots I didn’t even know existed. Some of those dots I still don’t understand. And while I embrace a lot of mystery of faith, one key principle that R.C. taught that I clearly understood was that men and women are reveled in the Bible warts and all. And the beauty is—God still used them.

While technically theology proper is the study of God. R.C.’s talks covered not only the Bible and theology, but philosophy, the arts, sex, economics, ethics, Greek mythology—in fact, I’m not sure what realm he didn’t cover.

Of course, any theologian popping up on a screenwriting blog may seem unusual, but it’s not unheard of. If you can’t talk about the spiritual realm at Christmas time, when can you talk about it? One of the most respected screenwriter bloggers/teachers, Scott Myers of Go Into the Story, has an Masters of Divinity degree from Yale. And perhaps my first grownup theological lesson ever came from Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader  in an interview published in  The Craft of the Screenwriter.  (I first read that book in the early 80s when I was still in film school.)

In an interview with John Brady, Schrader lays out the doctrine of total depravity and how he used that in the screenplay for Hardcore (1979). A story about a man from Grand Rapids, Michigan searching for his daughter who’s become a prostitute in California. (Sort of a modern-day reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers.)

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Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film looks at the films of Yasajiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer goes deeper on the topic. That book was published in 1988, when R.C. had relocated to Orlando. But it’s the kind of book that he would have discussed back in the early days when he talked about the foreign films.

There’s an episode of  Northern Exposure  titled A Wing and a Prayer where they arm wrestled over the doctrine of transubstantiation. I’ve always wondered where that episode came from. And you can’t talk about spirituality and films without talking about one of America’s greatest film directors who once wanted to be a priest:

“I’m not a theologian who could argue the Trinity. I’m certainly not interested in the politics of the institution. But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God.”
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (The Mission, Silence)

From the many interviews I read and heard over the years, I wouldn’t say that Scorsese has a lot of company in Hollywood that share his views.  But if you look outside the Hollywood system you’ll find filmmakers over the years with more of a spiritual emphasis; Krzysztof Kieslowski (Decalogue)—who Roger Ebert called among the greatest filmmakers, Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski , and Andrei Tarkovsky.

If you’re unfamiliar with films with a spiritual bent check out these; Tender Mercies, Babett’s Feast, Koyaanisqatsi, Ida,  Departures, Grand Canyon, On the Waterfront, and Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

R.C.’s memorial service was this past Wednesday and the song they started the service with was the song Non Nobis Domine that ends the movie Henry V.  A song translated from the book of Psalms meaning, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give the glory.” 

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

“Man is a useless passion. It is meaningless that we live and it is meaningless that we die.”
Jean-Paul Sartre

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
Jesus of Nazareth

Apparently we took the long road to Bethlehem on this post. But it’s Christmas Eve and churches will be filled with people singing songs about a baby in a manger; O Holy Night, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angles Sing, Handel’s Messiah. 

Outside the churches people will sing Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Santa Baby, and White Christmas. Christmas time in the United States is the meeting of the sacred and the secular.

The orginal Christmas in Bethlehem was a collision of the sacred and the secular on a cosmic level.  It turned the world upside down.

So much so that even the king of rock ‘n roll once became a theologian when he sang;

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born

 

Scott W. Smith

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“In this screenplay, I imagined a deadbeat father who had bailed on his kids years earlier, looking to return home to make amends.”
Writer/director Edward Burns on The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

“It’s a good thing our father left—we needed the space.”
Sharon (Kerry Bishe) one of nine Fitzgerald children raised in a 3 bedroom house in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

One of the things most (all?) Catholic and Protestant theologians agree on in is that Jesus was not born on December 25. Some scholars even speculate that Christ’s birth account 2000 years ago wasn’t even during wintertime, but in the springtime because that’s when shepherds watch over their fields. (“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8)

So it’s actually not that bizarre to talk about Christmas in May.  And I’ll do so by mentioning what I think is Edward Burns’ tightest script and best film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. (It’s currently on Netflix if you’d like to get in the Christmas spirit this spring day.)

“I knew I didn’t want to make the sappy, goofy, funny Christmas comedy. My favorite Christmas film has always been It’s a Wonderful Life, another film that has the perfect blend of light and dark, comedy and drama. George Baily has to cover a lot of tough ground to get that payoff. I also wanted my characters to go on a tough journey so that when the Fitzgerald family got together in the end, it felt earned. As I started to work on the screenplay, a theme of forgiveness started to present itself. Given that it’s one of the themes of Christmas, it tied together nicely. The script poured out of me and within four weeks, I had a first draft.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed; Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
page 212

If you just happen to be in the mood for Christmas music today, check out The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Album largely featuring the music of long-time Burns collaborator P.T. Walkley.

P.S. And if you want to add an indie companion Thanksgiving film to your May viewing watch Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes. Fitzmas (2012) and Pieces (2003) cost less than $600,000 to produce—combined. And one connection between both films that I know of is John Sloss was an executive producer on Pieces and received a special thanks credit on Fitzmas (Sloss, a University of Michigan law school grad, also provided legal service on Burns’ first film The Brothers McMullen.)

P.P.S. Yes, that is the talented Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Crime Story) in the screen grab above. She fit in time between shooting the Nashville TV series for the small (but wonderful performance) in Fitzmas as nod/thank you to Burns for casting her in her debut movie The Brothers McMullen (1995).

Related Posts:
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Prison “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
Merry Silver Linings Christmas
Christmas & Cancer (Connected because the father in Fitzmas has cancer.)
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Merry Christmas (2012) Same year as Fitzmas release and my last Christmas in Iowa.
Writing from Theme
Hope & Redemption
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra)
Filmmaking Quote # 15 (Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? ”
                                                                                                        The Maxtrix

“Life is very, very complicated and so films should be allowed to be too.”
                                                                                                      
 David Lynch 

 

Yesterday I drove two and a half hours to hear David Lynch speak for an hour. Or “the great David Lynch” as he was introduced. I don’t pretend to understand writer/director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) or his films. But I felt compelled to hear what he had to say since he is considered “one of the true originals of world cinema.” Plus he is notorious for not doing DVD commentaries so you grab bits and pieces when you can.

Of course, there’s a good chance that David Lynch doesn’t understand many of his films so doing a commentary could be tricky territory. I feel with Lynch what Ingmar Bergman said of Godard, “I have a feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have a feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

Lynch said this in the Focal Press book screencraft; directing: “I refuse to give explanations of any film I make. Films can be abstract and abstractions exist in everyday life and they give us a feeling, and our intuition goes to work, and we make sense of it for ourselves…Watching a film is like standing in front of a painting. It’s talking to you and it’s about a circle from the screen to the viewer to the screen to the viewer. Once that circle starts rolling, the same films can be seen 100 different ways by 100 different people. That’s why I refuse to explain my films.”

I became familiar with Lynch in 1980 with his film The Elephant Man that he directed and co-wrote. It’s the story of John Merrick who is heavily deformed and mistreated. I was a teenager and it may have been the first black and white film I ever saw in the theater. I knew I was watching something different. And when the deformed Merrick shouts, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” I knew I was experiencing something profound.

Oddly enough that film was produced by Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) who is known a little more for his humor than his profundity. The Montana born Lynch started out as a painter studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. That may explain some of the abstractness in his films. He made short films and went on to study at the American Film Institute.

Many of his films (Wild at Heart, Lost HighwayIsland Empire, Mullholland Drive) have left me shaking my head and wondering why I am watching a foreign film in English. But then there is The Straight Story about Alvin Straight who, unable to drive a car, decides to take his riding mower 240 miles across Iowa to see his brother who had a stoke.

Jerry Bruckheimer it’s not. The Straight Story is the antithesis of high concept. But it’s a film totally that captivated me long before I moved to Iowa. As a side note, I did meet actor Richard Farnsworth (who played the lead character Alvin Straight) in a movie theater in Burbank back in the 80’s. Here was a guy who was a stuntman and long before he rode a riding lawn mower in a movie rode one of the chariots in Ben Hur. And there he was just waiting in the snack line in front of me. How fun is that? 

Someone said The Straight Story  was not so much a film but a meditation. Which makes perfect sense since Lynch has been a long time proponent of transcendental meditation (TM). In fact, his talk was part of the David Lynch Weekend at the Maharishi University of School of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. 

 

Not technically connected to Trancendentalism that emerged in 19th century New England that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who were in search of Utopia. Though there is a connection in Vedic teachings from Ancient India. I don’t pretend to understand this way for thinking except that Thoreau’s Walden does tap into a universal theme of wanting to live in harmony.

In the Jewish faith there is the concept of Shalom, meaning peace or nothing missing. The Buddhist through meditation seeks awakening or enlightenment. In the Christian tradition Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives you peace do I give you.” I imagine all religions have some understanding of peace and harmony.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’ll leave the differences of these religions for someone else to discuss, but whatever you believe you can probably agree with Danny Glover’s character in the movie Grand Canyon as he reflects on the world he lives in, “Man, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” So we seek a sanctuary – a holy place.

Catholic’s have sought a higher spiritual plane though building beautiful cathedrals, and using candles and music such as the hymns of St. Francis of Assisi and Gregorian chants. In fact the mystical film Koyaanisqatsi was made by a filmmaker (Godfrey Reggio) who spent 14 training to be a monk years in a New Orleans Monastery before turning to film. 

I have been to Protestant black churches where the uplifting music mixed with somber spirituals alone last longer than most non-black services I’ve attended. Both John Calvin and Thomas Edison said that people were “Incurably religious.”

At this point we’re a long way from Beavis and Butt-Head as well as “Dude, Where’s My Car?” but there’s room on the screen for a few spiritually significant films. There is a reason some films resonate with people and are discussed endlessly: The Seventh Seal, Star Wars, The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix, The Qatsi Triliogy, Babette’s Feast, Grand CanyonTender Mercies, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

I think at least Lynch’s films The Elephant Man and The Straight Story fit in that catagory. So a little out of my comfort zone I went to hear Lynch speak on “Exploring the Frontiers of Creativity.” Here are some sound bites:

“Intuition is the number one tool of the artist.”

“Negativity blocks creativity.”

“Cinema is sound and picture moving in time.”

When someone asked him for some obstacles to make a film (in the spirit of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions) Lynch responded with a handful including these gems; “A bowling ball in space filled with red ants” and “A Buick with fifteen 16-year old girls.” 

When asked how he chose which ideas to make a film on he said, “I get ideas all the time and every once in a while I fall in love with one.” He said he is surprised as anyone when they come along and added, “I translate ideas that I fall in love with.”

So if you have trouble understanding Lynch’s films know that it’s like listening to someone explain the dream they had last night. You sit there nodding your head having no real way to process what they are telling you.

Lynch spoke of a new cinema. The first time I saw a photo of Lynch holding a DV camera it made perfect sense. He once said, “I started working in DV for my Web site, and I fell in love with the medium. It’s unbelievable, the freedom and the incredible different possibilities it affords, in shooting and in post-production.” 

Lynch told Videography Magazine, “With DV, experimenting is something you can do on your own. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s really a freedom thing.” 

By the way, if Fairfield, Iowa rings any bells in your head that probably means your a gamer. On July 13, 2007 Billy Mitchell set a verified world record high score on the classic Donkey Kong arcade game. Mitchell has recently been featured in two documentaries on gaming King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts. Right there is Fairfield, a small town most people in Iowa would have trouble placing on a map.

On my two and a half (plus) hour ride home I had to time to reflect on the day. One of the things that stuck with me was Lynch talked about the importance of the process. And actually, just driving down there was beneficial as I enjoyed the blue sky and wide open scenery, and worked through ideas for a screenplay I am working on. While driving back from Fairfield I stopped in a Iowa City and while in a bookstore read the intro to Juno: The Shooting Script by Diablo Cody. Cody writes:

 “And here’s my unsolicited advice to aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition. No one is capable of doing what you do.”

Mr. Lynch echos those sediments: “In cinema, if everybody was true to their stories and themselves, then there would be many unique voices.” Love or hate his films, David Lynch is a unique voice. 

 

“Water the root and enjoy the fruit.” 
                                                                    David Lynch 

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.” 
                                                                    Peter Seller’s character in Being There   

 

Photos and text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

 

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